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“Keeping Up with the Joneses”

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton, who wrote about the Gilded Age in New York City. She herself was a socialite and raised to the highest social standards (though she didn’t conform, especially in her decision to write).

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been tutoring Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. What a pleasure!

If you haven’t tried Wharton (1862-1937), you have a wonderful discovery in wait. You can even dip your toe in the waters through film: both her Age of Innocence and House of Mirth have been made into sumptuous movies attached to names like Martin Scorsese, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Gillian Anderson, and Wynona Ryder.  

As I prepared for my sessions, I ran across a fascinating bit of trivia regarding Wharton’s prominent New York family.

First, her maiden name was Jones.

Second, the Joneses were extremely wealthy and moving in the elite social circles (e.g., the Astors). In the 1800s, it became the fashion to buy land in the Hudson Valley for large, expensive summer homes. We would call them mansions, and socialites used them as summer escapes from New York City. You know, just a little river house.

In 1853, Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, Wharton’s aunt, built a “weekend getaway” of 24 rooms called Wyndecliffe. Wyndecliffe’s size and splendor set off a chain of competitive construction in the area—everyone trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Here is Wyndecliffe AFTER it fell into ruin in the mid-1900s, so you can imagine what it looked like in its prime.

GENERAL VIEW OF NORTH REAR WITH SOUTHEAST TOWER-BAY ON LEFT - Wyndclyffe, Mill Road, Rhinebeck, Dutchess County, NY HABS NY,14-RHINB.V,2-9
A scene from Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Imagine
the conspicuous consumption going on with this group!

Wharton, a product of this rarefied environment, presents all its warts in her work. She is sarcastic, humorous, critical, fond, and attuned to details. And though at times in the same vein as Henry James, I find her 95% less annoying.

The Age of Innocence won her the first Pulitzer Prize for Literature awarded to a woman, so if you’re into women writers, definitely check her out.

Beware! You might find, like me,
that you appreciate and under-
stand so much more of what you read on the better side of
age 40.